- The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years by Simon Morrison
Oxford, 491 pp, £18.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 518167 8
It is generally assumed that Soviet composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich were forced by the regime to simplify their style and write ‘life-affirming’ music that conformed to the canons of Socialist Realism. Most people think this was bad for their music, though a few hold the contrary. Now comes the shocker from Simon Morrison, a Princeton musicologist: Prokofiev wanted to write simple, life-affirming music because he was a Christian Scientist.
Sergei Prokofiev, born in 1891 and schooled in St Petersburg, left Russia in 1918 after graduating from the Conservatory. In the 1920s, when he was building his international career, Paris was his base. On his first visit back to Soviet Russia in 1927, he was delighted with the Leningrad production of his second opera, Love for Three Oranges, and pleased to be approached by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the renowned experimental director, about a possible production of The Gambler, his first opera. The idea of moving his operations to the Soviet Union was probably mooted at this time, but his enthusiasm waned during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1920s, when the proletarian music organisation RAPM reigned supreme and his maiden attempt at a ‘Soviet’ theme, in the ballet Le Pas d’acier, was panned. The dissolution of RAPM, along with the other militant proletarian organisations in the arts, by Central Committee decree in April 1932, was an encouraging sign: ‘It is time to come more often and to stay longer,’ Prokofiev wrote to his old friend and lifelong supporter, the composer Nikolai Myaskovsky.
More visits followed. Prokofiev was energetically wooed by Levon Atovmyan, a music official with a revolutionary past, who initially approached him – as well as other émigré musicians with an international reputation – at the suggestion of the Foreign Ministry. The Soviet ambassador to Paris followed up, making ‘many promises’ about the ‘privileges’ awaiting Prokofiev in the Soviet Union, including ‘housing, commissions, performances, and income that would relieve him of the need to tour’, as Prokofiev’s wife, Lina, later recalled. Commissions started to flow even before his final return and the offer was tempting. ‘The year 1935’ – when he was still based in Paris – ‘was one of the most lucrative of his career, the bulk of his income coming from Soviet sources,’ Morrison writes. His European and American career was doing well but it was a struggle to get his operas performed and he was disappointed at his failure to topple Stravinsky from his pre-eminent position in the contemporary music world.
Of course there were disadvantages to a return to the Soviet Union, as he well knew: two cousins with whom he was in close contact were under arrest. In addition, as one of his Paris friends recalled, ‘he had become accustomed to European comforts and his wife, Lina Ivanovna, was such a European woman that it was difficult to imagine her in a Soviet context.’ (Lina Codina, a cosmopolitan and multilingual singer, was born in Madrid and brought up partly in the United States and Cuba; her Russian connections were tenuous, though she had visited her Russian-speaking Polish grandfather in the Caucasus as a child.) ‘When you come to the USSR, the first impression is of uncouthness,’ Prokofiev wrote in his diary in April 1933. To be sure, ‘under this uncouthness you begin to discern interesting, inspiring people.’
Politics was not a factor in his decision to return. Unlike Shostakovich, he had never had any revolutionary sympathies, though he doesn’t appear to have had any strong feelings against the Revolution either. His overriding concern was to find the place in the world that provided the optimal conditions for his work. As he told his old friend Vladimir Dukelsky, a Russian émigré who, as Vernon Duke, had made a successful career as a Broadway composer,
I care nothing for politics – I’m a composer first and last. Any government that lets me write my music in peace, publishes everything I compose before the ink is dry, and performs every note that comes from my pen is all right with me. In Europe we all have to fish for performances, cajole conductors and theatre directors; in Russia they come to me – I can hardly keep up with the demand.
Prokofiev would no doubt have preferred to keep two home bases, Paris and Moscow, had the authorities not given him to understand after a few years of courtship that he would have to make a firm decision for Moscow or lose his access to Soviet commissions. Travelling had become a way of life for him, and he seems to have assumed that he would be able to continue making regular trips abroad. As he was preparing to leave Paris, there were worrying signs of change in the political weather. In January 1936, Pravda published an editorial entitled ‘A Mess instead of Music’, attacking Shostakovich’s new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, for its modernist tendencies (known in the Soviet Union as ‘formalism’). Lina was worried, and several of their friends warned them that the anti-formalism campaign was likely to spread. But it was too late to draw back easily; and in the end Prokofiev decided to read the situation in a positive light: Shostakovich might be a ‘formalist’, but he, evidently, was not; why else would the Soviets be wooing him? ‘In the months ahead,’ Morrison writes, ‘Prokofiev allowed himself to believe that, with Shostakovich under a cloud, he had automatically become the pre-eminent Soviet composer’ – an interesting transposition of his old competitive relationship with Stravinsky. It was a bad misreading of the way things worked in the Soviet Union.